FBI Director Christopher A. Wray on Thursday repeatedly sidestepped withering questions from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee about partisanship in politically charged investigations, including the Hunter Biden probe.
Republican lawmakers accused the bureau of targeting “patriotic Americans,” including parents at school board meetings who raised concerns about local education issues. They said the FBI was overeager to label conservatives as “militia violent extremists” and wondered why some of the agents accused of wrongdoing in the bureau’s Trump-Russia collusion probe hadn’t been disciplined.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said in his opening statement that the FBI is showing partisanship. He noted that the agency opened a probe of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign based on thin accusations of collusion with Russia.
“On the one hand, the FBI greenlit a full investigation into Trump based on liberal news articles and information derived from a liberal nonprofit,” Mr. Grassley said. “On the other hand, the FBI closed investigative activity and sources that provided verified and verifiable reporting on Hunter Biden.
“Director Wray will have to explain to the committee — and the country — how he‘ll manage this mess and clean house.”
Mr. Wray said the FBI and its employees were devoted to fighting crime without showing favor.
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“What you’re describing is not representative of the FBI that I see up close every day in this country, where I see patriots working their tails off with tremendous integrity and objectivity,” Mr. Wray told the senators.
Republicans consistently pressed Mr. Wray on accusations that a longtime agent with a history of anti-Trump social media activity was deeply involved in the Hunter Biden criminal investigation and that he labeled verified evidence against the president’s son as “disinformation.”
Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, ticked off a list of anti-Trump social media posts in 2020 by Timothy Thibault, assistant special agent in charge and leader of the Washington field office. At the time of the posts, Mr. Thibault and others were leading the FBI‘s probe into Hunter Biden while his father, now President Biden, was running for the White House.
Hunter Biden has not been charged with wrongdoing, but investigators were looking into whether he violated federal gun and tax laws. He is also under federal scrutiny for suspicion of money laundering and possible violations of foreign lobbying tied to his overseas business dealings.
“It’s not about their political beliefs. This is a senior employee at the FBI with years of experience going on social media and tweeting this kind of stuff, which gives people the impression there is bias whether there is or isn’t,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“You’re killing yourself with this stuff. This investigation needs to be completely honest, and the results need to be reported to the American people,” Mr. Kennedy said.
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Mr. Wray defended the bureau and its roughly 35,000 employees but declined to address specifics because the Hunter Biden probe is ongoing. He pledged to protect the whistleblowers who have made accusations of improper partisan influence in the Hunter Biden investigation.
Mr. Wray dodged questions about Mr. Thibault’s social media posts because of “ongoing personnel matters.” He said he emphasizes to employees the need to avoid the appearance of bias or lack of objectivity.
He also declined to say whether Mr. Thibault still works for the FBI or is involved in the Hunter Biden investigation.
“The investigation that you are referring to is being run out of our Baltimore field office working with the Delaware U.S. attorney, who is a holdover from the prior administration,” Mr. Wray responded each time he was asked whether Mr. Thibault still has an active role in the Hunter Biden probe.
In May, Mr. Grassley called on the Justice Department inspector general to investigate Mr. Thibault. He said the social media activity violated several FBI rules and regulations.
In February and September 2020, Mr. Thibault liked separate Washington Post opinion pieces that repeatedly criticized Attorney General William Barr, according to Mr. Grassley‘s letter. The September 2020 op-ed assailed Mr. Barr’s handling of the cases against Trump associates Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.
Mr. Grassley said Mr. Thibault retweeted a post by the anti-Trump Lincoln Project that called Mr. Trump “a psychologically broken, embittered and deeply unhappy man.”
Mr. Wray told the Senate panel that the bureau will take steps to protect whistleblowers after current and former Justice Department and FBI employees said agents illegally suppressed information about the Hunter Biden probe.
Although he did not address specific accusations related to the Hunter Biden case, Mr. Wray spoke generally about protecting whistleblowers.
“We will be scrupulous in our adherence to rules related to whistleblowers,” Mr. Wray said. “If there are allegations of misconduct by FBI employees, we want to make sure that we get that information so we can use the tools we have to go after that conduct. But certainly, I condemn in the strongest possible terms any prospect of retaliation against whistleblowers.
“I think retaliatory conduct against whistleblowers is unacceptable, and we have a number of mechanisms to report [it] but also be protected from retaliation,” he said.
The FBI director made the pledge after Mr. Grassley revealed that his office had been contacted by current and former “highly credible whistleblowers” who described how the FBI improperly sought to discredit the Hunter Biden investigation by labeling “verified and verifiable” information about the president’s son as “disinformation.”
In a letter last month to Mr. Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland, Mr. Grassley wrote that the whistleblowers told him that the Justice Department and FBI are required to follow strict guidelines to open an investigation. He said the agents did not follow those regulations.
Mr. Grassley said the whistleblowers also revealed that Mr. Thibault shut down a line of inquiry into Hunter Biden in October 2020 because of false information, even though some of the details were known to be accurate at the time.
Mr. Wray said employees accused of wrongdoing during the bureau’s Russia collusion probe had been referred to its disciplinary arm. He said he couldn’t provide more details because of special counsel John Durham’s investigation. Mr. Durham is investigating accusations of misconduct by the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies that probed claims of collusion between Mr. Trump‘s 2016 campaign and Russia.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, rebuked Mr. Wray about a leak of FBI materials by the conservative activist group Project Veritas. The materials reportedly list conservative symbols, including the Betsy Ross, Gadsden, and Gonzalez Battle flags as “indicative of militia violent extremism.”
Mr. Wray said he wasn’t familiar with the document and couldn’t comment on it, but he assured Mr. Cruz that the FBI usually takes “great pains” to make clear that a symbol alone is not considered evidence of violent extremism.